David Brooks is a special kind of stupid. How can we describe it? It is a skilled stupidity, really; Brooks, more than any other conservative posing as not-completely-delusional and/or shameless, is extremely talented at transforming thoughtless middle-class biases into what thoughtless middle-class people then take to be wisdom. The evil brilliance of this, of course, is that they then walk away from the experience of reading a Brooks column feeling satisfied that what do you know!, they are even smarter than they assumed. Because David Brooks agrees with them. And David Brooks is a Thoughtful Person. And reasonable!
I wish I possessed the special power to articulate exactly how his only profundity lies in how amazingly good he is as at being amazingly wrong, but so many others have done it so well and I myself find that my brain somehow stalls, aches, and nearly shuts down altogether in frustration as it tries to process both the inanity and frightening power of Brooks’ masterly oeuvre of nonsense.
I do have something to say, however, about Brooks’ latest masterpiece. In a column entitled “The Nature of Poverty,” where he recycles nearly every lazy assumption and distortion about “the culture of poverty” that the Right has been spouting for half a century – half a century folks, that’s half of 100 years of this stuff! – he ends, after explaining that poverty is not really about money but “relationships,” with this gem: “The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.”
Apparently, Brooks has never heard of Albert K. Cohen. In 1955, he wrote a book called Delinquent Boys, which explained deviant behavior in the working class as the product of social failure. Simply put, working-class boys lacked the cultural resources to compete in a middle-class world – Brooks puts this somewhat differently, writing that Freddie Gray “was not on the path to upward mobility” – and thus when they experienced failure and harsh rejection from the middle class, they lashed out by adopting a set of values and attitudes antithetical to those of the middle class authority figures who had unthinkingly shamed them. According to Cohen, delinquent boys understood both that they were being rejected and that their families, as well, were looked down upon by the broader society. Yet of course, it appears that Brooks does not think the affluent bear any responsibility for failing to contribute to the “series of intricate interactions” that produce people with “future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” After all, we already know that he thinks the middle class has super superb awesome amazing values. So Cohen will not do.
However, perhaps Brooks has also never heard of Walter B. Miller, who would probably be more to his liking. Miller did not think the middle class was at all to blame for the conditions in poor neighborhoods – rather, he believed that the poor lived in an insular culture particular to themselves. “In the case of ‘gang’ delinquency,” Miller wrote, “the cultural system which exerts the most direct influence on behavior is that of the lower-class community.” Moreover Miller, unlike Brooks (who conveniently just skips over the entire causation question) had an explanation for how lower-class culture got that way. Lower-class culture, Miller argued, “is a distinctive tradition many centuries old with an integrity of its own,” and it was rooted in the traits and lifestyles of European peasants and rural African Americans. Yet this is an explanation, of course, that cannot be blamed on postmodernism, consumerism, gangster rap, or anything else that post-dated the European peasantry, so I’m not sure it would be to Brooks’ liking either.
What if there was someone who just simply explained that, although not having good jobs is a problem (which even Brooks reluctantly admits), the sickness at the heart of American poverty is really a sickness of the soul. Maybe if someone only argued that “even more basic,” than the material sufferings of poverty is how “this poverty twists and deforms the spirit. The American poor are pessimistic and defeated, and they are victimized by mental suffering to a degree unknown in Suburbia.” Oh wait, someone did – his name was Michael Harrington, and he was a socialist. Now this, I know Brooks can use – after all, he loves little more than selectively quoting figures associated with the left to validate his Wisdom of The Ages dribble.
So ok – I’m going to take a breath now from six paragraphs of caustic sarcasm to explain why all of this is important. It is not simply that David Brooks does not know what he is talking about, and cannot be bothered to do even the most minimal amount of research, historical or otherwise, when blessing us with his sublime blathering. (That’s not sarcasm, but an accurate description.) Rather, what is telling about his “call” for a “thinker” that can explain to us all why poverty is really the fault of all those messed up poor people is that this is actually what social scientists, public intellectuals, and pundits have been telling us for, again, fifty years. This is not original thinking but rather a set of memes that are recycled over and over again, their proponents always claiming they are pushing against “received wisdom” when in fact, it is the received wisdom. Of course, telling affluent people that their prejudices actually make them worthy of the admiration of a daring super-jerk ubermensch like Steve Jobs is a move conservatives are extremely, extremely skilled at making. What David Brooks is asking for, then, is not a new thinker to discover or explain anything, but someone to fabricate or manipulate evidence (because he’s too lazy to do it himself) to validate his pernicious beliefs. I mean, really man – at least Daniel Patrick Moynihan had some (bad) graphs in his report.
Finally, there’s one more takeaway from the history of recycling the lie of the culture of poverty – and that is the diversity of the participants. The idea appears in various forms, with sometimes trivial and sometimes substantial differences, but at the core always rests an analysis of poverty that turns our attention away from the economic system that keeps it alive. Indeed, back in March one of the Times resident liberals, Nicholas Kristoff, wrote one of the traditional liberal celebrations of the Moynihan Report. In fact, Brooks “analysis” is so ingrained in the American imagination that aspects of it even seduced the likes of Michael Harrington, one of the most well-known leftist thinkers (and not even an ambiguous New Leftism, but an old fashioned socialist leftism) in the post-war period. His most widely read book, The Other America, was so popular it even got him invited to the White House to advise the liberals on how to combat poverty. And when an idea with very little empirical or historical evidence is appealing to such a broad sweep of the political spectrum, we might want to start thinking about what the bigger tent or tents are that are bringing such a motley group together.
 Cohen, Albert K., Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang (Glencoe: The Free Press,1955/61).
 Walter B. Miller, “Lower-class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency,” Journal of Social Issues, Volume 14, Issue 3 (1958), 5, second quote 19.
 Harrington, Michael, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1962/69/81/93), 2.
 Not coincidentally, it was also the only book he ever wrote where he did not discuss socialism.